Watertown International Airport swapped its 9-seater flights to Albany for 44-seater flights to Chicago back in November. So far, passengers and officials seem to agree it's been a big success.
It's 6:30 in the morning, and unlike her husband who's a soldier at Fort Drum, Stacy Dotzler doesn't usually get up this early. She's at the Watertown airport, about to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Chicago. From there, she'll fly on to her final destination, San Francisco, where she's going to visit family.
Despite her sleepiness, Dotzler is happy to be traveling through the Watertown airport. It beats the last time she traveled back to California.
"I had to drive all the way to Syracuse, which is awful," she said.
Flying out of Watertown is much more convenient, Dotzler said. And the free parking?
Patricia Grandage is happy, too. She's been visiting relatives in Dexter and is about to go back to her home in Texas, via Chicago. Being able to fly out of Watertown rather than Syracuse saves her travel time.
"It cuts off about an hour and a half," she said.
Jefferson County runs the airport with the help of federal subsidies. Until November, Cape Air offered the only commercial flights out of the Watertown airport, serving 4,000 passengers a year. When the airline contract was up for renewal, county officials asked the federal government to use that money to bring in a carrier with larger airplanes. That's when American Eagle took over and began offering direct flights to Chicago. The airline offers two flights a day to and from Chicago.
Now the airport has reached a milestone with its new service, surpassing the 10,000 passenger mark in about seven months. County highway superintendent James Lawrence manages the airport. He said that number could mean even more expansion for the facility, since it means the Federal Aviation Administration will recognize it as a growing airport.
"And that would increase our funding hopefully from $150,000 to close to $1 million," he said. "We have to maintain that over the next three years, of course, to show that we are a viable airport, which we feel comfortable that we can do."
Lawrence said the airport is on track to surpass its own goal of 14,000 passengers in the new service's first year.
"We have business people such as Air Brake using our service here, we see the Canadian market actually using our airport, because of our neighbors close to the border, and Fort Drum, most definitely, are using our airport, which is exciting, you know. We're actually even seeing some people coming up from Syracuse. Our flights are similar in price, similar to what Syracuse is offering, so .... we have a wide range of people here."
Lawrence said an increase in federal funding would pay for needed maintenance and improvements. But other destinations are also a possibility. A study with Fort Drum showed Chicago was the area's top preference in destinations, but New York City and Washington, D.C. are also on that list.
"That's always in the back of our mind, whether it's different destinations or more frequencies, that is a goal for this airport," Lawrence said.
To do that, the airport needs a longer runway. Officials are already looking into doing that project in the “near future” with FAA funding, Lawrence said.
"So, we're excited about the growth, we're excited about how the community has bought into this airport, and it is just a great milestone for us."